The Maxims of Ptahhotep

The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry by Simpson (ed.), Ritner, Tobin and Wente (trans.) (2003, Yale University Press)

Ptahhotep – a city administrator and vizier from ancient Egypt – during the reign of Pharaoh Djedkare Isesi in the 5th Dynasty (late 25th century to mid 24th century BC) – gives instructions to his son, Ptahhotep the younger:

On knowledge, competence and wisdom:

Do not be haughty because of your knowledge,

But take counsel/ with the unlearned man as well as with the learned,

For no one has ever attained perfection of competence,

And there is no craftsman who has acquired (full) mastery.

Good advice is rarer than emeralds,

But yet it may be found even among women at the grindstones.


On countering belligerence:

If you come up against an aggressive adversary (in court),

One who has influence and is more excellent than you,

Lower your arms and bend your back,

For if you stand up to him, he will not give in to you.

You should disparage his belligerent speech

By not opposing him in his vehemence.

The result will be that he will be called boorish,

And your control of temper will have equaled/ his babble.


On desire, time and wealth:

Follow your heart as long as you live,

And do not work beyond what is allocated (to you).

Do not waste the time of following your heart,

For wasting time is an annoyance of the spirit.

Do not lose the hours of daylight

Beyond (what is necessary for) keeping your household in order.

When wealth has been amassed, follow your heart,

For wealth brings no advantage when it is a burden.


The excerpts come from a work called The Maxims of Ptahhotep – available in The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry published by the Yale University Press.


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